This evening I cast my mind to Shakespeare. I undertook to find his personal opinion on matters of man and his place in the universe; to do my best to unravel a little strand from the fabric of his mind.
This is a formidable challenge, not only of comprehension but also of discovery. To extrapolate the drives of a dramaturge whose personal philosophies must be subordinate to the needs of his characters on stage, there’s the thing. Shakespeare never directly published his own philosophies; no scholarly reports. Instead, he left us a body of work that encases the opinions of characters of his own creation or borrowing. His technique was to hold a mirror up to nature and reflect the multifoliate minds of mankind with detachment. So to discover the voice of the man himself, may be possible, but can be nothing more than educated guesswork.
I think one can extrapolate a certain obsession and particular viewpoint, a viewpoint that altered in emphasis over his life, but was repeated again and again on his stages. Time to me seems his most powerful preoccupation. This is one subject, in distinction to most, where Shakespeare, was almost singular in the language he wrote for his characters, whereas on Religion, Science, Office, Justice, Class, Race, Instinct, et al, his characters all speak in degrees of opposition. But not one of his characters ever revels in the transience or brevity of his or her life. And Shakespeare used, with a wicked irony, his own profession, the stage, as a salient metaphorical backdrop. Shakespeare’s only certainty is that Time will stop; just as a play will come to its final curtain.
Of course, this obsession does carry considerable practical weight on the stage as it does in any artful storytelling. He uses time’s silent momentum as a dramatic device to heighten tension, inevitability and drive towards a particular end. This obsession provides all his work with a ticking clock, a bomb under the seat of unsuspecting baseball commentators, if I may borrow from Hitchcock.
Indeed, all men share this certainty, but Shakespeare’s continuing exploration and coverage of it gives us a clue regarding his religious belief. It shows a man internally raging against the received and unchallenged wisdom of Elizabethan England regarding God and His Kingdom of Heaven. It is almost as if he thinks that all religion is merely an attempt to prevent the cessation of ones time. Eternity: that is what is promised, even sold by church and state. A product for which there is so little evidence, and yet upon which we risk so much.
Shakespeare, from this tragic-comic certainty suggests little in response, except that we must do the best that we can with the time that we are given, and that eternity will come not from some supernatural bearded man nor pantheon of wine-guzzling deities, but from the glory yielded by living an honourable life.
Enough of my thin words. Here are his: